‘Bend it like Oliver’

This morning I had a coffee at my local cafe. It’s not a chain, in fact it’s a one off. It doesn’t take cards, but offers free wifi. The food is just what you want, a price you want to pay, and the coffee is variable depending who is making it. In fact it’s pretty perfect. Perfect in the sense that it has flaws (no cards, variable coffee), and that’s great, because that’s life, and the fact that I know its flaws means that I have a relationship with it. So hats off to you Oliver Senior, you have designed a service that I have a real relationship with, and that’s even before I describe how nice the people are who work there… I’m glad to say the toilet has no flaws, in a ‘loo at home’ kind of way. In fact, it takes my relationship with the place and its people to another level when I read the strategically positioned notice (see picture above).

On the face of it, you can see that the cafe has scored the treble, a real service with appropriate imperfections, lovely people delivering the service, and now a deepening of that relationship by overtly telling me more. But the notice really stuck with me, and a trigger of much thought.

My first thought was, what does this say about the modern economy, particularly as the ‘Hospitality Industry’ is such a significant part of our ‘nation of shop keepers’ economy? Really, how can the Welfare to Work programme operate under these conditions? How do you create jobs in the service economy when so many people delivering the services do so as merely income generating exercise while they prepare for alternate careers?  I feel for the people trying to evaluate the success of the Welfare to Work programme. I love our Backr service even more. (My second thought is finding myself questioning my outrage at Starbucks lack of paying taxes, thinking – well, maybe they’re financing Higher Education, and we should be grateful? And then I remember their guy in the Select Committee, and my outrage returns )

Then I think of the cafe as a business, one supposedly run by three trainees – a trainee actor, a traineee business woman and a trainee counsellor – plus, a home baker and a traveller (I suspect the basement kitchen staff might not be included in this list.). And I’m thinking – can you scale such an enterprise? I think of Cafe Rouge, Starbucks, Strada – all places you go to and know exactly what to expect, their predictability attracting some, but also repelling many. You don’t get any flaws (just service failures like badly cooked food, or a rude waiter), and you don’t get a relationship through the service. As the people line up behind the tills at Pret, you get shouted at, politely, but time is of the essence, but they still take cards. You can see they’ve been trained, the supply chain is automated, the names are on the badges, not on their lips. Ultimately, the bureaucracy has been built to scale up, and at the expense of a relationship based service. There are of course exceptions, I was at Pret in Kings Cross station last week, and someone behind the till said the the customer in front of me – your usual? But, that’s so unusual.

So, how do we scale relationship based services? How do you create natural local services with personality within a huge network? This has to be one of the largest challenges of the future of the Welfare State. This isn’t about localism and shoving the bureaucracy to the front line, which doesn’t guarantee any better success at creating relationship based services. This is about building relationships with service users (or people, as we like to call them.)

We’re grappling with these issues at Participle as we scale our Circle and Life Programmes. In part, you have to structure the network to make sure a relationships based service is built in at every stage – design, testing, local scaling, regional scaling, and then national. Co-ownership helps, like our partners in Rochdale Borough Housing which recently become a mutual. But, co-ownership breeds a specific culture, and even then, people are not sure how they should behave in practice. t becomes the focus, rather than the relationships. In fact, structuring it correctly only takes you so far.

Let’s turn the telescope around, and look through the other end. A relative recently had a biopsy at his local inner London NHS hospital. The operation was in the morning, and he was worried that he couldn’t attend his grandchild’s birthday party in the afternoon. He asked the Irish nurse if he would be in a fit state to attend the party. Her reply (start Irish accent) – Och youse’ll be riding your horse in the afternoon – (end Irish accent). It made him laugh. He told me. It made me laugh. It still makes me laugh. Even writing this I smile. I think, how can a cancer nurse keep up that level of personality in all that she must face, when dealing with patients, and when dealing with the NHS system around her? Of course, they went on to talk about the grandchildren and had a great old time, despite the intrusive operation. He’s was then moved on to another department, and now another hospital, in fact. He hasn’t seen the nurse again. That’s possibly unavoidable, but most importantly he feels better about the NHS and his treatments ahead. That’s good for him, but even better for the NHS, because happy patients are less work. And, now we have a new family saying, if anyone is worried about anything, a test at school, anything, we say (in bad Irish accents) – Och youse’ll be riding your horse in the afternoon. A small, but important, good outcome of a relationship based service.

So, how can we create services that have the personality that builds relationships? The standard answer is, it’s about culture, and it’s about people. But as we know, both are hard to ‘control’, particularly at scale. At Participle, we’re learning how to get this right, but to do that, we have to replicate the value and personality of the local cafe, and cautiously observe the operational structure of Starbucks. A better answer, I would suggest, is that it’s all about feelings. A good service knows how to manage (and process) the feelings of people giving and taking it. We must all accept this: People are wise. ‘Customers’ know about call-centres. People know when a script is being read. People know when something and someone has integrity. It’s a feeling, right? And so it’s not a question (Mr.Starbucks) of ‘servicing’ the ‘customer’ in the right way, it’s not about ‘processing’ them with specific ‘actions’, to create predictable ‘outcomes’. Sorry. It’s about understanding the person in some small way, connecting with them, and building on that connection.

The greatest misconception of those delivering services is that this isn’t possible because it takes time. It doesn’t have to. The most costly element of any service is service failure, not service success. So, all call-centre staff, don’t ask us, ‘How are you doing today?’ or ‘Can I help you with anything else, today?’ We see through that. What we want is for you to say, ‘Sorry, can you say that again? I’m a bit hungover, it was my Mum’s birthday last night.’ Then you’ll build a connection with me, and we can take it from there, and who knows, it may even lead to a relationship of sorts, even if for just a few minutes, or even from a distance. But chances are, if you make a connection, you can build a relationship, and from there, the possibilities are endless. The trick is…. scaling it… because you can’t write “Tell them you have a hangover from the night before” in a manual… And that’s why we like the local cafe, because they don’t have a manual. They just feel it. And in order for that to be of value, there has to be ‘bend’ designed into the service, it can’t be rigid.

Hugo Manassei, Principal Partner at Participle

What next for the welfare state? Article published by Fabian Women’s network

What next for the welfare state?

Hilary Cottam, founder of social enterprise, Participle, talks to Fabiana about relational welfare

The welfare state: where are we now, Hilary?What is working and what is missing?

It is essentially the same welfare state that we had in the 1950s, and we have had 20 years of trying to reform it around the edges. The reality is that British society has changed but our welfare state is still built around a white male breadwinner while care, a huge role of the state, is pushed off, unpaid, into the women’s domestic realm. There are problems today that Beveridge never considered when he designed
 it: for instance, I work on ageing. Over 60% of the British population is over the age of 60. Another example is our health economy, all organised around hospitals and infectious disease when 80% of the health burden now is chronic disease and shouldn’t be medicalised.

With all these issues coming together, we need a radical settlement around the state, society and business and a very new, dynamic relationship between the state and the citizen. The Labour Party did make things happen – such as SureStart – but we need
 a fundamentally different welfare model.
 The Labour Party understood the state and
it didn’t understand the citizen; now the Big Society talks about the citizen but has got
no conceptual model of the state, which is equally problematic.

You have defined what we need as a more relational welfare: what do you mean?

We need to move away from a model about
 a transaction which passes goods and services to people, that does things to people, to one about engaging with people and doing things in relationship with people.
The idea of relational welfare works on three levels for me. One is methodological to re conceive the welfare state we need a completely different vantage point: approaching it from my background of feminist academia, of psychoanalytic thought rather than the sphere of production or consumption, immediately makes you ask different questions. Secondly, there are huge issues about time and how to balance our lives.The third set of considerations are about welfare in terms of services and the state, and here we need to see how to solve problems collectively, in dialogue, working together.

How would that work in practice?

In all the public service work Participle does, one of the most important things is the way people talk to each other. For instance, when our families in crisis choose the life team, they are looking for people who will talk to them as I am talking to you now as equals, in an open way. For me,this is relational welfare. It is a kind of cultural, attitudinal change as much as a change in what is actually delivered.

Our work on ageing is another concrete example of relational welfare.The system of adult social care in Britain is one rationed by economic status, how much money you have, and your physical ability. But our work clearly shows that people are in greatest need of social relationships. As the WHO says, loneliness is a bigger killer than smoking. People judge their meal delivery or their cleaner according to whether they’ve been able to talk to them, not only by the food or cleaning received.Taking all these insights, we’ve built a universal service called Circle, basically a community membership service. Instead of a public sector service being done to you, you join something, you own it, feel like a member, and the traditional boundaries are very blurred between who is providing the service and who is receiving it. I might be very bad at technology so someone is helping me with that, but I’m helping you because I’m taking you out of the house for a walk, or meeting you out of hospital.This particular example is cheap, and it is saving a lot of money, because it is built on software rather than on buildings, vehicles, all that kind of thing. And it is built on social capital, on us being each other’s solution.

We designed this service bottom- up in Southwark, with 250 older people and, importantly, their families. Circle would not have been invented by 250 people getting together alone in a church hall without resources.To design our project, there was major state participation and investment,
in really rethinking, in a very systemic way, where resources are, what’s needed and how we can shift that system.

“Welfare reform must bring a very new, dynamic relationship between the state and citizen”

How would women benefit from a relational approach to welfare?

The gender issue is the challenge for relational welfare to solve, because care is still predominantly the woman’s role, and the old welfare state has not found a way to resolve this. Traditional welfare, and public service reform, is held within very traditional categories of production, consumption, subject, object, and all of those categories have broken down. Power is diffused in a very different way, so I think the lens of relationships enables us to bring them back into the political debate, which is a start- ing point, without which we can’t go anywhere.

Looking closely at relationships also enables us to tackle the outdated presumption of care being in the home and the woman’s role, while production and consumption happen outside.The caring roles are still being pushed onto women, from mothering to caring for a relative, and in late capitalism it has become more difficult to think of a way to address those issues.

Funding the welfare state is essential but so is the principle, the intellectual frame- work that we are talking about. I cannot believe that all my conversations with my girlfriends and the mums at school are still about how
we cope with the basics of our daily lives like childcare and balancing everything, even with a supportive partner! I don’t see that it is going to be any different for my daughter as things currently stand.The welfare state needs to change, and it is a cultural change that we need, to enable people, women in the first place, to develop their capabilities and unlock their talents.

Hilary Cottam

A new version for public services. Beveridge 4.0

14 Fabian Women’s Network e-magazine

‘The relational state’ debate, How can Labour reform public services so that they put people’s relationships at their heart?

Read the full report here:  IPPR publication

A lively and engaging debate on relational welfare last night, in the House of Commons.  Jon Cruddas MP was chairing and the speakers were our principal partner Hilary Cottam, Rick Muir of IPPR and Liz Kendall MP Shadow Minister for Care and Older People.

Thank you IPPR for hosting and creating the opportunity for this space, and to all of you who came, including Lord Glasman, Neal Lawson, Mary Riddell, Stefan Stern, Indra Adnan, Anna Coote, Lady Hollis, to name a few. All of your thoughts, ideas and questions have added huge value to the debate on relational welfare, and how we can make it work.

The main theme of the discussion was the need to have a HUMAN approach when we are thinking of relational welfare. In order for change, we all need to understand the importance of the work that happens from the ground up. There has to be space for front line workers to contribute, and more power given to people within their communities. It’s all about human relations, and the emphasis has to start here. This is what we do at Participle, and what we will continue to do.

As Lord Glassman said: ‘It is about participation and solidarity’

Now, more importantly, we need to hear from you all. We need to carry on the discussion, hear your thoughts on what relational welfare means to you, and how it can benefit you, the public.

Please join in.

The new Rochdale Pioneers!


The new Rochdale Pioneers!

Kick starting relational welfare literally in the home of the original Rochdale Pioneers, founders of the world wide Cooperative movement.

Here are some of our inaugural members of our newest Circle for the Borough of Rochdale on a visit last night to the Pioneer Museum’s newly re-opened exhibition space, fronted by the original shop.

Most people didn’t know each other at the beginning of the evening but came to the event due to a shared interest in local history.  By the end of the evening one guy was giving three women a lift home.  Two more women realised they lived near each other so swopped numbers and decided to come to our next event, a steam train trip to celebrate Lancashire Day together!  New social connections being made there and then which have the potential to translate into opportunities and community networks for older people to support a flourishing older age.

Circle is an innovative membership-based organisation open to anyone over the age of 50, supporting individuals and communities to lead the lives they want to lead. We support our Members across four areas of their lives: social activity, life’s practical tasks, tailored learning and appropriate health and wellbeing services.

Rochdale Borough Circle has been made possible through a collaboration between Participle, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing and the Social Action Fund (Office for Civil Society). 


Share your thoughts and comments here!

What does relational welfare mean?

Many challenges have arisen in our society since the welfare state was established in the 1950’s:

An ageing population, new patterns of illness like diabetes and the increase in cancer, changes to family structures, climate change, and, despite huge rises in wealth for some, the biggest increases in social inequality for over 50 years.

The response of this government and the last one has been to talk about public service reform.  Some new ideas – the growth of the hospice movement for cancer care, the early success of Sure Start child development programmes – have made real differences in people’s lives.

But in most cases what reform has meant for those who use and work within our services is a dispiriting increase in bureaucracy.  Did you know for example that social workers spend up to 80% of their time on form filling and other tasks around these forms?  Did you know that up to 80% of any service budget is spent assessing people’s needs and keeping them out of the service?  Such a waste of talent and money when needs are growing.

In order to meet the big and new challenges facing us it is not an answer simply to privatise these old models – which is what so much reform has meant.

At Participle we work on the ground, in the homes and communities of people in very different parts of the UK.  We have seen the evidence for what is needed – a truly responsive welfare state that builds the capabilities of all: services that value and build on relationships.  A form of welfare that understands that loneliness kills; that you need a social network to find a job when 80% of jobs are never advertised; that you need someone to stand by your side when you have grown up in a community that no longer remembers decent work and you are confronting all the problems of violence, depression and anxiety that go along with this.

Relational Welfare is not just an idea.  At Participle we have created new examples of how it can work and how we can pay for it.  Several thousand people have benefited so far.

Circle, is our social enterprise which supports older people. The aim is to provide lower level care, and practical tasks, whilst building a rich social network www.circlecentral.com.

Life, our work with families, is an empowering experience for the families who face many difficulties in day to day life. The families have the potential to change their own lives. We provide the framework for those at the front line to create a new relationship with families that starts from a different place, and supports transformation. www.alifewewant.com

Backr is a service that creates opportunites for those seeking work. It provides someone to vouch for you, to support you, and reflect with you. It will build a social network around people within this framework and includes support for the small businesses that will drive job creation. www.backr.net

A relational approach defines not just the goals but the way we can get there.  Relationships are the glue that keep us together – we can build public services that foster good relationships.

If you want to read more about our practical examples see here www.participle.net.

If you want to read more about the ideas underpinning our approach see herehttp://www.participle.net/images/uploads/soundings48_cottam2.pdf

Further reading- ‘Relational Welfare’ by Hilary Cottam

A new version for public services. Beveridge 4.0

What does relational welfare mean to you?

Join the debate here.